We hear the term a lot lately. “The elites.”
In sports, elite is a compliment. In travel, it’s a perk. In politics, it’s poison.
Particularly in the recent election. The electoral college, which is tilted away from the dominance of city-dwellers, shows a substantial vote “against the elites.” Although the beneficiary is himself a billionaire.
Apparently, money alone isn’t enough to make you “elite.”
There has always been an elite in this country. Boston Brahmins, New York’s “Old 400” families. The Roosevelts, Teddy, FDR and Eleanor. The east coast intelligentsia. Wall Street bankers.
The elite gets blurred with issues of class—the upper class of birth and the upper middle class of meritocracy. The latter includes smart people who write successful books, publish the news, who set and administer policy, who run corporations and things, in general.
This election added a new meaning to the term.
No longer is elite status an aspiration to work toward and celebrate in a child’s achievement. Now it expresses the parents’ alienation.
We think “the elites” look down on us.
If they do, the reason is education.
For generations, Americans have believed in education as the path to upward mobility. Public education. Higher education. Community education. Something more than job training. Gradually, that has slipped away.
Why does it matter? Because a rounded education gives us a lot more than job skills.
Such as, a fuller understanding of where we come from, how we fit into the story of our village, town, state and nation. How those stories fit into the story of the world.
No story is more fragile.
My ancestors came from Scotland, France and Germany. The American story that brought them together is an invention of the human mind.
We like to think it descended in pure form from our Founding Fathers, “the elite” of their time, as we imagine it. But in truth the story of America is altered continually, by every generation.
By every individual family that pulls away from community, by every schoolroom (public, private or home) that gives in to the seduction of propaganda when choosing texts to study.
It’s altered by every vote we cast.
The narrow definition of “the elites” as people who “don’t get it,” who “look down on us,” is a product of perception distorted by hidden purpose. Very gradually it has risen to supplant the dream of our parents and grandparents for better lives defined by something more than the size of a television set or waist.
We don’t even know it is happening because we don’t have the education to decode it.
The father of modern advertising, a German named Goebbels, taught us that power can be gained by inventing an alternative “truth,” then repeating and repeating it. Imagine if he’d had the tools of social media and the internet to do that with.
We vote from our gut, not our minds. We vote by feelings created by the information we take in. From media, community, church and friends. From personal experience.
And all of it can be manipulated by one elite we didn’t notice.
The cynical elite who hovered behind the scenes in this past election, but whom we are coming to know all too well.
The popularizers of the alt-right, neo-Nazi fringe: Steve Bannon and Breitbart News.
And the billionaire outliers slated for Trump’s cabinet. Former Goldman Sachs traders, hedge fund managers, contrarian ideologues and more generals than most military juntas boast.
We spoiled children have set fire to our homeland without even a cave to run to.